CTOs taking a digital lead

The job of the CTO is changing in support of digital transformation initiatives

The job of the chief technology officer (CTO) has always been fluid, requiring the skills and flexibility to move quickly with the times and harness new technology and IT service models as they emerge.

And digital transformation – defined as the integration of digital technology into all areas of business to change how organisations operate and deliver value to their customers – is forcing even greater alteration to the role with additional obligations now supplementing or replacing core responsibilities which are being delegated further down or across the management chain.

Core CTO responsibilities

The precise duty of individual CTOs inevitably varies from one organisation to the next depending on company size and available personnel, but the job holder usually takes on a set of core functions.

In larger firms the CTO is usually responsible for the day to day running of IT for example – everything from IT service management, supplier relations and procurement, shared IT services, data centre operations, telecommunications and security. A key aspect of that role involves ensuring that internal and external systems stay up and running and meet required performance levels, usually through active monitoring and incident response.

The CTO can also control funding and is closely involved in application and system procurement, making decisions on innovation led technology modernisation, optimisation and consolidation projects.

It is not just about the technology though. In most cases, the CTO holds overall responsibility for managing both the physical and personnel technology infrastructure which underpins the organisation’s IT estate. Alongside new technology deployment, network and systems management and integration testing, the CTO often takes the lead in nurturing the skills of technical operations staff.

He or she also engages in close collaboration with other executives to identify, rationalise and plan new business models and capabilities – often underpinned by technology innovation – whilst leading internal business divisions. Elsewhere the CTO often applies technology best practice to main business functions and determines how mainstream and emerging technologies are deployed with the organisation to advance its business strategy.

Sharper emphasis on Innovation

By putting a sharper emphasis on embedding technology into every corner of the organisation, digital transformation initiatives take the CTO beyond their traditional remit.

Given their knowledge and experience with IT procurement, it is no surprise that the CTO is being given greater influence over innovation – not just around technology but also business strategies that drive the organisation’s ability to thrive in rapidly evolving commercial landscapes.

That can include heading up research and development activity for instance, as companies look to build out innovative product and service portfolios to exploit rivals’ weaknesses and provide competitive advantage through optimum time to market. It also involves the identification and nurture of new and emergent tools to improve internal processes and efficiencies – much bigger task than just keeping the lights on for legacy systems and infrastructure.

In both cases, the CTO is imbued with the mantra that technology leadership is more about business differentiation rather than maintaining the current state of play – both in terms of the products and services being delivered internally to the organisation’s own staff and business partners as well as externally to customers and clients.

More than ever before, digital transformation now needs the CTO to understand how to identify, communicate and enact change on a daily basis, and using people to architecture that change is just as important as harnessing technology. Making sure that IT managers, administrators and developers understand the vision is key, as is equipping them with the training and skills to identify ways to drive changes within their own sphere of operations.

The modern CTO spends less time working on technology initiatives and more on partnering colleagues and helping internal staff identify and implement their own digital transformation projects whilst overcoming what for many can be innate resistance to change.

Formulating policy too is rapidly becoming equally as important as fostering better education, especially when it comes to compliance with industry governance and data protection regulation. Helping employees understand the risks to the business that new technology brings and best practice required to mitigate against those risks is no longer the premise of the chief information officer (CIO) alone – the CTO is needed to understand where new technology both presents new cyber security and data protection risks, and where it can provide effective solutions to those risks whilst streamlining day to day security management and administration tasks.

The rapid pace of technology innovation means that forecasting is becoming an invaluable skill for any CTO engaged in digital transformation – the ability to distinguish between the latest technology trend, or shiny new object, and the hardware, software and services that can deliver the best value to the business. This is often closely allied to RnD management, with the CTO often expected to allocate budget to vet different technologies through appropriate pilots and proof of concept (PoCs) ahead of mainstream rollouts.

CTOs leading the way

Research suggests that CTOs are leading the way when it comes to enabling digital transformation in many organisations. A survey conducted by Constellation Research in September 2017 found that CTOs and CIOs made up 59% of global leaders found to have taken an innovative approach to digital transformation within their organisations. The executives—working across industries including entertainment, finance, government, healthcare, higher education, retail, and sports—all demonstrated an understanding of how the business environment is transforming in response to new technologies, and are actively preparing their companies to succeed both during and after the changes, according to Constellation.

Digital transformation involves fundamental improvements to the end user experience that are not always rooted in bits and bytes but rather the formulation of strong, ongoing relationships between the customer or internal stakeholder and the company brand. It rarely takes place just because an organisation revamps its IT estate or introduces new tools and processes to the mix – rather than a one off project it should be seen as an ongoing evolution that integrates the IT perspective with a broader customer centric and business outlook.

The CTO is a vital cog in enabling and maintaining that attitude, but ultimately the digital transformation machine needs support from multiple executives – everybody from the chief marketing officer (CMO) to the CEO through to the chief digital officer (CDO) and CIO.


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